Gabriella Lukacs

  • Associate Professor

I am a media anthropologist whose research focuses on Japan and Hungary. I completed my Ph.D. at Duke University in 2005. Since then, I have been a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach courses on contemporary theory, media, labor, and gender.

An interest in creative and digital labor threads through all my projects. My work on media covers analog and digital media, which I theorize as a continuum. I take a political-economic approach to my research, but also derive inspiration from object-oriented ontology and theories of infrastructure to think about materiality beyond its Marxist conceptualization as economic structures that set events in motion. Currently, I am completing a manuscript on authoritarian state populism and media activism in Hungary. Unlike my first book that explored an analog medium and the second one that examined digital media, this project investigates the relationship between the analog and the digital in developing distinct forms of state populism and anti-government activism. I plan to continue exploring this relationship in future projects that examine the cute industry and artificial intelligence in Japan.

Research Description

My first book, Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan (Duke University Press, 2010), analyzes the development of a new primetime serial called “trendy drama” as the Japanese television industry’s ingenious response to developments in digital media technologies and concomitant market fragmentation. Integrating a political-economic analysis of television production with reception research, the book suggests that the trendy drama marked a shift in the Japanese television industry from offering story-driven entertainment (signification) to producing lifestyle-oriented programming (affect). It argues that by capitalizing on the semantic fluidity of the notion of lifestyle, commercial television networks were capable of uniting viewers into new affective alliances that, in turn, helped them bury anxieties over changing class relations in the wake of the prolonged economic recession.

My second manuscript, Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan’s Digital Economy (forthcoming from Duke University Press, 2019), tells the stories of the so-called “girly” photographers, net idols, bloggers, online traders, and cell phone novelists who turned to digital media to sculpt meaningful DIY careers in 2000s Japan. By studying the careers of entrepreneurial women who pursued DIY endeavors in the digital economy, this book argues that, more often than not, this economy did not enable women to develop sustainable careers. Rather, it used women’s unpaid labor as the engine of its own development. The life spans of DIY careers in the digital economy were tied to the profitable life cycles of the particular technologies women engaged to build their careers. At the same time, feminized affective labor has remained central to the entrepreneurial projects women were able to pursue in the digital economy, which also did not help empower women in the realm of work.

I also edited a special issue for Positions: Asia Critique titled Youth, Labor, and Politics in East Asia that investigates youth unemployment and underemployment—a prominent effect of the deregulation of national economies during the 1990s and 2000s in the region. As opposed to understanding youth unemployment and underemployment as social anomalies, this volume analyzes these trends as the new faces of labor. The contributors ask what it means for youth to become part of the workforce in a context in which young people are encouraged to think about work as a source of fulfillment, while the employment available to them is increasingly precarious.  

My current book project titled Illiberalism’s Culture: State Populism and Media Activism in Hungary pursues two goals. On one hand, it examines why the Fidesz government has engaged such idiosyncratic analog media as postal-mailed surveys and billboards to cement an authoritarian form of state populism. On the other hand, it investigates critical responses to this strategy by examining such forms of media activism as (1) independent theater, which emerged as the first site of anti-government activism, (2) counter-billboard campaigns provoked by the government’s anti-immigration billboard campaigns, (3) street art inspired by the billboard war between the government and anti-government activists, (4) political vlogs that evolved from critiquing the national survey campaigns, and (5) political memes that document and expand the reach of analog media activism. Scholarship that studies the relationships between populism, media, and political activism tends to focus either on analog or on digital media. By doing so, this scholarship creates a divide between the analog and the digital, which it then also replicates as an analytical separation. My case studies demonstrate that the boundary between analog and digital media technologies is not always as clear-cut as it is commonly assumed to be. Advances in digital media invite (often politically motivated) returns to analog media. At the same time, digital media inspire new ways for analog media to serve both projects to build authoritarian regimes and activism to undermine these regimes.

I also continue working on projects that pertain to Japan. One of these is titled The Labor of Cute: Women in Japan’s Culture Industries. Expanding upon my second book, this project builds on, but also departs from, scholarship that theorizes cute as a matter of commodity aesthetics. It proposes that the paradigm of cute helps us understand how post-Fordist labor has ascended in the hierarchy of laboring forms in Japan. I demonstrate that expertise in cute culture enabled women artists to enter Japan’s culture industries during the 1980s and 1990s. I suggest that women played a central role in destabilizing the Fordist labor regime as they successfully articulated a humanist critique of alienation through their production of cute culture. I investigate how cute culture interfaced with such genres as photography (Hiromix, Ninagawa Mika), mixed media art (Kiyokawa Asami, Kudo Makiko, Kusama Yayoi, Aoshima Chiho), novels (Yoshimoto Banana, Kawakami Mieko), anime (Ishizuka Atsuko, Yamada Naoko), manga (Okazaki Kyoko, Anno Moyoko), and fine arts. I propose that cute emerged as a valuable currency not only because it fluently translated into ever-newer commodities, but also because it promised to reconcile the subject-object dichotomy of labor that the developmental state had exacerbated by the mid-1980s in its relentless pursuit of economic growth. 

Another project titled Virtual Companions: Affective Labor and Artificial Intelligence in Japan explores an artificially intelligent home assistant, Gatebox. What interests me in Gatebox (and similar companion robots) is how designers tackle the problem of encoding a human capacity, affective labor, into artificially intelligent robots. Marketed as a “virtual wife,” Gatebox features a 3D holographic character, Azuma Hikari, who appears in a 20-inch tall transparent tube. The anime-like girl in the box does more than turning on lights, operating home appliances, or waking up users. She also participates in conversations with her owner. During the day, she sends text messages to inquire about her owner’s wellbeing and to nudge him to get home early. Highlighting that single-person households make up 32 percent of the housing market in Japan, the designer of Gatebox, Takechi Minori, observes that a growing number of young men perceive real relationships as “troublesome” and prefer to cultivate intimate relations with anime characters. As such, this project uses Gatebox as an entry point to discuss how transformations in Japan’s postwar labor regime are reconfiguring affective labor and gendered forms of sociality. It analyzes how the designers of Gatebox harness cute culture to enable an artificially intelligent robot to pursue affective labor and thus to infuse a sense of security into lifeworlds that are increasingly characterized by precarity.

Courses

Contemporary Anthropological Theory

Graduate Seminar. In this course, we review current theoretical trends in cultural anthropology. We read texts published within the past decade that represent various thematic and theoretical foci in anthropology including media, environmental, and medical anthropology, political economy, feminism, critical race studies, queer, and disability studies. Although we mainly discuss ethnographies, we also read texts that are not written by anthropologists but are based on ethnographic fieldwork. These texts are important because they enable us to explore what makes an anthropological approach to the production of knowledge different from the ways in which other disciplines produce knowledge about contemporary conditions. Current ethnographies reveal that it is decreasingly justified to locate that difference in anthropology’s unique method of gathering data: ethnographic fieldwork. Many anthropologists complement fieldwork with analyses of textual sources. Similarly, many scholars in literature, linguistics, and media studies rely on fieldwork—interviewing people—as a key source of data. In this course, we will consider whether we could think of ethnographic fieldwork not only as method but also as theory. We ask how the “datalogical turn” (Clough at al. 2015) affects the ways we think about ethnographic fieldwork. Patricia Clough at al. note that as adaptive algorithmic architectures are learning to collect and analyze information about individuals and social trends with ever-greater efficiency, the observing and self-observing human subject is becoming an obstacle in the way of efficient data collection and analysis. We discuss how growing interest in big data might affect the identity of the discipline and the relationship of anthropology to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. An important goal of the course is to inspire students to reflect on what makes a dissertation project innovative (and thus fundable). Equally relevant, students are also encouraged to think about how to design research projects that scholars in various disciplines find appealing.  

Technology and Subjectivity

Undergraduate & Graduate Seminar. The goal of this course is to develop new ways to theorize the shifting relationships between humans and technologies. We discuss how the relationship between humans and technology is changing and why this relationship is taking on an intimate character. We ask how this intimacy might be an effect of technology’s promise to enhance our life chances or its promise to optimize our physical and mental health. A focal point of the course is the exploration of how our intimate relationship with technology might be an effect of late post-Fordist work conditions that require us to be constantly plugged into technological assemblages and align our bodily rhythms to the rhythms of machines. After completing a set of readings on the subjectification effects of technologies, we discuss how particular technologies might be conducive to transformations in the conditions of work and to the emergence of new labor subjectivities. We also ask how workers’ resistance to particular forms of work organization drives innovation in technology. 

Gender and the Global

Undergraduate & Graduate Seminar. Gender is a key structuring principle of difference and inequality in society, while globalization is a condition characterized by time-space compression and ever-expanding connections across national boundaries. Globalization emerged out of such (and often violent) practices of contact as capitalism, colonialism, socialism, the Cold War, and neoliberalism. This course explores the intersection of gender and globalization, asking how gender shapes processes of globalization and how the role of gender is shifting as national/cultural regulatory systems are no longer able to maintain control over what is recognized as “normative” in the context of gender roles and gendered practices. This course examines various facets of the interface between gender and globalization in such contexts as cross-border marriages, international adoption, sex and colonialism, gender and state violence, women in socialist welfare states, labor migration, the global sex industry, queer identities and activism, as well as gender and technology (especially, the intersection of gender inequality and the idea of technologically enabled empowerment). The particular historical contexts in which we discuss these themes include colonialism, the Cold War Era, post-socialism, and neoliberalism.

Japanese Society

Undergraduate Seminar. This course aims to introduce students to cultural practices and social institutions in postwar and contemporary Japan. It gives students a range of different exposures—using scholarly books, essays, and film—to look at various conditions and aspects of Japanese culture and everyday life: economic high growth, middle class society, recession, social precarity, gender relations, education, consumer culture, and popular culture. We begin by interrogating the anthropological notion of culture: what is it, how is it expressed, what conditions it, and where are its limits? We examine discourses on the uniqueness and homogeneity of Japanese culture and ask what compels and shapes these ideas and how they are confirmed or contested in such domains as ethnicity, gender, the workplace or the school. The goal is to familiarize ourselves not only with Japan, but also with the process of engaging in dialogue with members of other cultures. We have the tendency of using our own cultural categories as a standard for what is normal behavior. People in other cultures therefore seem strange, while we seem, by contrast, normal. How can we learn to perceive others in their terms rather than those we impose on them (through stereotypes, for example)? How can we use such intercultural exposure to reflect back on ourselves: to learn what constitutes our own cultural behavior and to consider how culture shapes and constrains our ways of thinking? The section topics are organized along two axes; within the individual sections, studies on the culturally dominant forms of everyday life and behavior are juxtaposed against works, films, and novels that explore forces of resistance and cultural incongruity. The course is also structured as a series of oppositions between ethnographic works that have represented Japan as culturally homogeneous and those that have challenged this more culturalist stance by theorizing Japan as part of the global culture and the transnational economy. The special focus of this class is Japanese media and popular culture that is increasingly being exported around the world. We consider the postwar history of Japanese media culture and the reasons for its recent popularity abroad.

Cybercultures

Undergraduate Seminar. This course will enable students to critically evaluate the role and place of digital media in contemporary societies and their own lives. Drawing on scholarly essays, journalistic articles, documentaries, and TED lectures, we will discuss the following topics: remix culture, creative commons, copyleft, cyber-surveillance, hacking, the Anonymous movement, data mining, micro-work, crowdsourcing, crowdfleecing, blogging, and social networking. Throughout the course, we will ask how digital media might foster or foreclose possibilities for creative expression, political mobilization, and new forms of employment. More specifically, we will inquire whether the architecture of the Internet is designed in ways that are conducive to cultivating freedom, creativity, and democracy. We will discuss various forms of hacking as key terrains where battles over the regulation of the Internet and struggles over intellectual property rights are waged. By reading about entrepreneurial individuals who strive to develop DIY careers in the digital economy and by considering how the Internet operates as an apparatus that captures free labor, we will explore how digital technologies transform the world of work. We will learn about data mining—a corporate practice that extracts value by transforming into data-commodities the traces we leave behind in cyberspace. To understand the ways in which digital media are conducive to the formation of communities and the ways in which they enable individuals to improve their status and employability, we will end the semester by discussing blogging and social networking. This course will encourage students to consider how anthropology might offer new insights to studying digital media and how research on digital technologies that are interactive, upgradable, viral, and spreadable might inspire anthropologists to rethink such foundational concepts of the discipline as culture, community, and self.

Gender and Labor

Undergraduate Seminar. Most of us agree that gender discrimination should be eliminated from the world of work, but we find it more difficult to abandon deep-seated beliefs that men and women are not equally suited to pursue certain professions. We wonder whether women belong in the army, the cockpits of airplanes and space shuttles, or whether men make good nurses and babysitters. It still hits the news when a fire department hires a female firefighter and a recent documentary (made by a Pitt alumna, Julie Sokolow) asks how a transwoman coming out in a hypermasculine NYC fire department complicates the question of gender at work. In this course, we will read and watch documentaries about gender and work in various social contexts. We will examine how our beliefs about gender-appropriate occupational identities are culturally conditioned and how employers perpetuate gender biases in their hiring practices as they prioritize growth over ideals of gender equity. We will read about flight attendants who were able to negotiate less sexist weight standards only in 1991, traders who perceive the ability to take risks as a measure of masculinity, women in factories who are hired for their nimble fingers, sex workers, hostesses, and exotic dancers who are expected to perform gender at work, and Indian IT employees who harness the dowry system to land a dream job in Silicon Valley. This course aims to help students better understand how work functions as a site where gender difference and hierarchy are reinforced. We will ask how neoliberal globalization has intersected with local gender divisions of labor in diverse social contexts. We will examine, for instance, how strategies of transnational corporations to bypass labor militancy have facilitated the feminization of the transnational labor force. Many scholars have argued that advances in digital technologies have weakened an organizational model of capital accumulation dependent on the concentration of production in offices and factories. We will consider how this shift occurred and what were its repercussions. We will also ask whether paid labor in the home serves as a source of empowerment or whether it integrates individuals into new systems of inequality. Equally important, we will interrogate how gendered laboring practices can disrupt sexist social formations.

The Anthropology of Work

Undergraduate Seminar. Scholars have criticized Marxist theories of labor arguing that Karl Marx’s observations—drawn from the industrial working class—no longer help us grasp the new nature of productive activity in the twenty-first century. Others have argued that Marx’s labor theory of value has, in fact, never been more relevant. Today’s culture of producing commodities with ever-shorter lifespans funnels rural populations into factories. Concurrently, expanding income gaps facilitate unprecedented growth in the service sector transforming service providers into what Hairong Yan describes as “new servants of new masters.” These trends, scholars argue, force more and more people into work conditions that are not unlike the labor conditions Marx theorized. At the same time, it is also true that in recent decades, the forms and conditions of work have undergone significant transformations in response to the rise of the service and finance sectors, the devaluation of manufacturing, and the pervasive downgrading of employment from full-time work to part-time work arrangements. In this course, we trace the changing conditions of work and formation of new labor subjectivities in various contexts such as transnational factories, the service industries, and the information industries. We consider how the strategies of transnational corporations to bypass high production costs, labor militancy, or environmental concerns have facilitated the offshoring of production and the feminization of a transnational labor force. We also discuss how the emerging middle classes in countries, such as China and India, drive labor migration by creating new needs for new services. In the context of Japan and the United States, we examine how particular forms of work—such as affective labor—are coming to occupy privileged positions in the hierarchy of laboring forms in what scholars describe as “affect economies.” In the same contexts, we also discuss how young people—who are increasingly engaged in the production of what they consume—are being incorporated in the labor force without being formally employed or without receiving financial compensation for their time. We conclude the semester by reflecting on the condition of the very labor market students in the class will be entering. We contemplate why employers increasingly rely on free or token-wage labor, including internship programs, volunteering, and crowdsourcing. We discuss what scholars theorize as the end of wage employment and ask what might be some of the advantages and disadvantages of this development.

Publications

Lukacs, G. (2019) Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan's Digital Economy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Lukacs, G. ed. (2015) Youth, Labor, and Politics in East Asia, Positions: Asia Critique, Volume 23, Issue 3.

Lukacs, G. (2015) “Cool Japan, Soft Power, and Cultural Globalization,” in Towards New Humanities in the Era of Ubiquitous Media, Ishida Hidetaka, Yoshimi Shunya, and Mike Featherstone, eds. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 195-218 (in Japanese). 

Lukacs, G. (2015) “Unraveling Visions: Women’s Photography in Recessionary Japan,” Boundary 2, vol. 42, no. 3, 171-184.

Lukacs, G. (2015) “Labor Games: Youth, Work, and Politics in East Asia,” Positions: Asia Critique, Volume 23, Issue 3, 487-513

Lukacs, G. (2015) “The Labor of Cute: Net Idols, Cute Culture, and the Digital Economy in Contemporary Japan,” Positions: Asia Critique, Volume 23, Issue 3, 381-409.

Lukacs, G. (2013) “Dreamwork: Cell Phone Novelists, Labor, and Politics in Contemporary Japan,” Cultural Anthropology, 28(1):44-64.

Lukacs, G. (2012) “Workplace Dramas and Labor Fantasies in 1990s Japan,” in Global Futures in East Asia, Ann Anagnost, Andrea Arai, and Hai Ren, eds. Stanford University Press, 222-247.

Lukacs, G. (2010) “Iron Chef Around the World: Japanese Food Television, Soft Power, and Cultural Globalization,” International Journal of Cultural Studies Volume 13(4): 409-426.

Lukacs, G. (2010) “Dream Labor in Dream Factory: Japanese Television in the Era of Market Fragmentation,” in Television, Japan, Globalization, Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Eva Tsai, and JungBong Choi, eds. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 173-194.

Lukacs, G. (2010) Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.